FROM SILENTS TO THE
by George N. Fenin and William K. Everson
A review by David Pietrusza
THE WESTERN: FROM SILENTS TO THE SEVENTIES by George
N. Fenin and William K. Everson, Penguin Books, New York,
Serious discussion of the Western film are few and far
between. Most discussions of the genre fall into the category
of fan magazine filmographies with little real critical evaluation
or intelligent discussion of the achievements of the makers of
such sage-brush sagas.
Standing apart from this tradition of sloppy scholarship and
publicity department hackwork was a 1962 work by George
Fenin and William Everson, an in-depth study which went far
beyond the norm and raised the level of discussion about the
Western to that of serious cinema criticism.
At hand is an updated version of that work. George Fenin has
added two chapters to the volume detailing developments of
the last decade, events which have moved the form further
away from the stereotyped images of the past and which
gave given a new vigor to the one American film style that has
attained universal appeal with global audiences.
Despite these valuable additions, however, the sections on
the silent screen still stunningly remain the high point of this
history not only and make this volume absolutely must reading
for the serious student of screen westerns but also a
necessary reference point for the aficionados of the silent
film. From Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery to the
westerns of D.W. Griffith and Thomas Ince, to the
ultra-realism of the great William S. Hart to the showy and
stylized presentations of Tom Mix and a host of imitators, this
is an estimable record of the silent tradition.
It is little remembered that the very earliest of Westerns, such
as those of Hart, cared little for the Wild West Show formulas
and insipid plottings that often characterized the form and
which led to such sugary confections as the "singing-cowboy"
or the run of cliched characters and scenarios that made
"Western" and "Grade B" almost synonymous.
It is one of Hollywood's ironies that William S. Hart, the
stone-faced man who stood more than the rest for the
authentic mode of Western drama, who (although he did
spend part of his youth in the 19th century West) was a born
Easterner and originally a Shakespearean and Broadway
performer, while Tom Mix, the originator of the showy,
glamorous, ersatz Western form was a Westerner to his very
core who owned a ranch, fought in Mexican revolutions, did
stunt work, won rodeo prizes and captured bandits as a
real-life sheriff and U.S. deputy marshal.
For some time the Western was needlessly split between two
disparate forms--the "B" series, nurtured by such stalwarts as
Ken Maynard, Hoot Gibson, and Buck Jones; and the "epic,"
exemplified by such films as The Covered Wagon, The Iron
Horse, Red River, and Stagecoach. Comparatively rare
were good, solid, medium-budget pictures.
With the coming of television Westerns (for which the authors
care little) the "B" series oat-burners died. Replacing them
were, of course, individual "B" pictures and some new forms
as well. Sexual themes, psychological motifs and the new
stereotype of the noble and exploited Red Man came to the
fore. The Italian "Spaghetti" Western and such Sam
Peckinpaugh offerings as The Wild Bunch saw the genre
take an increasing turn toward violence and graphic brutality.
Along with a more-or-less chronological treatment of the
topic, The Westerns offers fascinating chapters devoted to
such little noted facets of the subject as stuntmen and
second-unit directors (those men responsible for the vivid
action sequences that enliven even the most ponderous of
these sagas), the format's perennial international audience
and home-grown competition, and the continued-next-week
format of the Western serial.
The bottom line: The Westerns is indispensable for those
interested in either the Western per se or the art of cinema in
generally admirably written and scrupulously researched.